At forty-five pages, Teresa P. Mira de Echeverría's novelette Memory (translated by Lawrence Schimel) packs a densely imagined tale of love amid political upheaval into an hour's read. The story had been previously published in Terra Nova: An Anthology of Contemporary Spanish Science Fiction, which was reviewed by Alexandra Pierce for Strange Horizons in 2013, but its stand-alone reprint allows for a more in-depth analysis of a work that is at once lovely and terrifying in its implications.
Eleven-year-old human Jedediah, born and raised on Mars, lives in a poor, deindustrializing rural town with nothing to do but go to church. On the outskirts, Martian "natives," who "play the Indian," have fought off their exploitation by earthling humans and live in space-pueblos, riding space-horses across the red dust of the Martian space-desert. These "natives" are not aliens but genetically modified human beings designed to terraform Mars, and so their status on Mars seems coded in the familiar terms of a colonist-created racial class, rather than as an interstellar cipher of general otherness.
Jedediah’s elderly neighbor introduces him to Ajax, a 300-year-old native. Jedediah is immediately dazzled by the sheer novelty of Ajax’s body, but we quickly see that Ajax possesses almost complete dominance in the relationship through seniority, strength, and a supernatural mind which allows him to perceive possible futures as though they were memories. The book follows Jedediah's journey into adulthood, and into love with Ajax, which further complicates when Ajax insists they become a triad with a teenage girl, Hebe, and, later, attempt to become parents.
Memory might be politically charged science fiction but this is not a story for fans of world-building, nor is its focus either politics or science. Both the technology and the interplanetary battles are impressionist backdrops to an unsettling magical-realist romance set inside a space western. The manifesto-like musings on the nature of love and time, both seen as sets of possibilities, give the book an air of New Age thought and subversive challenge to restrictive norms.
Perhaps, I recognize despite myself, one can love in many ways. Perhaps each love might be unique and individual: a different love for each beloved. (p. 29)
Perhaps Martian culture will adopt the triadic form of marriage as a general norm, or, even better, perhaps multiplicity will be the common currency. Where love has no limits, nor chains; where to love a husband or wife is as universal and full as loving a child or a brother or a friend: those one loves without any condition, regardless of their sex or if they are one or five or a thousand. A world on which one loves people for themselves, not for their gender or their number . . . (p. 31)
All that said, the central focus comes to be on how Ajax manipulates the younger, weaker, and temporally linear Jedediah and Hebe into creating Martian "mestizo" children, with genetic material from every partner, symbolizing the unique and autonomous greatness of Mars. As Jedediah describes this project:
Our child would be a human, with the genes of all three of us . . . a Martian triumph for our people . . . Symbolically, it was perfect. In reality, it worried me. (p. 34)
On Mars, our little girl was already a standard to stand behind, before her birth. An almost mythical personage: the child of the liberated Martian who will overcome, even, the genetic conditioning of the terraformers. (p. 35)
But Jedediah’s consent to including Hebe in his relationship with Ajax, and to becoming a parent, is coerced out of him; he becomes convinced that his jealousy and trepidation are less valid than Ajax’s supernatural understanding of their lives. We learn little of Hebe beyond repeated descriptions of her adolescent frailty and submissiveness, but Ajax leaves her and Jedediah no choice in shaping the future Ajax "remembers" for them. He insists:
" . . . I would do anything to keep you at my side. Anything! Even tying this young life to our own by any possible means, even forcing you to lie with her although you despise her." (p. 26)
Ajax’s ultimatum is simple: if either Hebe or Jedediah refuse the arrangement, the two men will literally eat Hebe alive. They eventually give in, and perform a marriage ceremony, the gruesome details of which I won’t spoil. I’m certainly not the first person to notice that the broad vision for love within Memory contains a great deal of all-too-familiar horrors.
And in fact, despite the natives’ possession of both small gametes and a womb, cissexuality receives no interrogation in the text. Martian "mestizo" children may have any number of eyes, tentacles, limbs, and organs, but remain assigned a male or female gender based on external genitalia—which at first seemed like a curious choice (or oversight) in a work like this. But then I considered, with some personal annoyance, how binary sex assignment carries assumptions about reproductive viability, even as roles and technology change. As a trans person, my large gametes and my boyfriend’s small gametes are an anxious point of hope for well-meaning busybodies, who tend to reassure themselves aloud to us that we might redeem our queerness with a nuclear family—that if I "can’t be a woman," at least I could "still be a mother." So, in their shattering of earthly norms and taboos, Ajax’s more Martian Mars doubles down on old-fashioned cisnormativity because of its natalism. All relationships with anyone can be valuable, so long as a child can be made. We never find out if there are infertile or deliberately childless family units in the new Mars; it seems implied that they would simply not exist on liberated Mars.
Thus, Memory is both a triumph of non-binary, non-monogamous, self-deterministic love and chosen family—with some psychic powers—and also an unsettling mess of emotional abuse and racial ideology. Anyone who has witnessed the scarier sides of queer and polyamory subcultures may recognize in Ajax, Jedediah, and Hebe’s relationship the tactics of gaslighting-for-solidarity and poly-as-distributed-codependency. Additionally, Ajax’s fixation on reproducing from the genetic material of every partner, and the belief that this is the way to create truly Martian children, reminded me of the way some mixed-race identity scholarship—even just the commonly held liberal sentiment that in the future we’ll all be golden—can be implicitly hostile to indigenous and black identities and futures. It is beyond my own understanding of post-colonialism to contextualize the author’s Argentine identity within this, but it did seem to be a possible avenue neglected by existing English-language reviews.
I felt the need to address these dimensions of Memory because I have overheard the story pitched a few times by readers as "positive non-binary representation" (and Upper Rubber Boot promotes it under the #diverseSFF tag). I don’t think the value of any story hinges on the moral righteousness of the characters, or even the author, and as a writer I sometimes find the pressure for so-called positive representation to effectively judge all marginalized writing against a politics of respectability; that said, Memory is not merely a feel-good celebration of love and the survivors of abuse should proceed with some caution. Still, the novellette is excellently crafted and beautiful, if painful, to read—and it still is in fact diverse. The very end heightens the motif of desire across a malleable torus of time, and it satisfied and stuck around with me for several days after. Overall, Memory is a sensual sucker-punch of short fabulist science fiction.
K. Tait Jarboe is a sound designer and writer living in Boston. Their fiction can be found in Wyvern Lit, UNBUILD Walls Literary Journal, The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline, and forthcoming in Split Lip Magazine. They're currently writing a text adventure game about abstract expressionism for Choice of Games LLC. They have a Twitter and a website.